All of her stories are happy and all of her stories are sad. Aimee Bender writes with words that are exacting and exact, and within her tales of utter and desperate morality twist tight threads of both extremes: gladness, hope and, simultaneously, anguish.
Bender has always played with skewed human scenarios to illuminate various cultural foibles and this, her third book, continues and expands on this technique. In one story, a man keeps a small man in a cage as a pet and alternatively tortures and lavishes beneficial attention. In another, a boy born with keys for fingers lives a life defined by the doors he is able to unlock with his hands, though he never finds a way to unlock his father’s constant sadness. A woman whose relationship has come to a definitive end plays bull in the china shop and manages to break Hope, Air, and Nuts, infuriating the artist of this esoteric medium. While her stories are tinged with a sense of magic, they are also grounded in familiar circumstances such as love, broken hearts, ennui, and failure. Bender creates newness in an age when so much of what’s on the shelves and walls seems tired and repetitive. She dares to think further than the page.
Another remarkable characteristic of Bender’s writing is the simplicity of her lines, the sparse elegance that exudes from every corner of the page. She manages to use just enough words, never too many. In this she differs from some of her contemporaries, Ann Beattie and Andrea Barrett, for instance, who, while producing the same level of quality as Bender, use far more pages. Bender will appeal to readers who appreciate slim, light volumes still able to deliver ample fodder for thought.
Though Bender writes with a moral bent, she avoids preaching to her readers from a place of supremacy. Instead, she offers humility, self-questioning, wonder, and a strain of innocence even when describing a worn out woman crazy enough to hide all the coats at a party, as in “Off”: “…there’s just a row of cacti and then the sun setting in the distance and who needs weapons when they’re cacti.” In “Dearth,” Bender tells of a very unusual family coming to terms with and finally delighting in their own slightly repulsive flavor. “Motherfucker” deals in the opposite direction in which the protagonist makes a habit of finding astonishingly beautiful women and making them more so through emotional pain and loss. In Bender’s world, this seems not so much a horrendous thing to do but a gift given.
Perhaps the most important story in this collection is the final one, “Hymn.” Through a rapid series of appropriately altered births, a perfect world, a haven is created. Bender leaves us with the knowledge that only through our own actions and biology can a world be made a safe, nurturing place. “My genes, my love, are rubber bands and rope; make yourself a structure you can live inside.” A solid, hopeful sentiment for such dismal times as these…